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New Orleans Leads The Nation In COVID-19 Deaths Per Capita

Ashley Dean
A sign outside Balcony Music Club in New Orleans. March 19, 2020.

New Orleans is a city of social closeness — of parades, of sweaty dance floors, of social clubs, of tourist attractions teeming with bodies.

And now it’s a city with the highest rate of deaths from COVID-19 per capita.

As of noon Thursday, 46 people have died in Orleans Parish — home to New Orleans — which has a population of about 391,000. That’s are 11.8 deaths per 100,000 residents.

That rate is far ahead of other cities and counties in the U.S., according to data from the New York Times. King County, Washington, has the next highest rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita: 4.5. And though New York City has the highest number of deaths, 280, its rate per 100,000 people is 3.2. (Note: New York City is made up of several counties, but individual county data was unavailable.)

There are 997 known cases of COVID-19 in New Orleans — 255 per 100,000 people — making it among the highest in the U.S.

“We remain very concerned about the number of known cases of COIVD 19 that we have in New Orleans,” Dr. Jennifer Avegno, director of the New Orleans Department of Health said in a press conference Wednesday. “What we know is that we have one of the highest infection rates behind several counties in New York City and a handful of others. … What these numbers continue to tell us is that we have substantial community spread”

Dr. Rebekah Gee: It turned out people were not just catching beads, they were catching COVID-19.

The response from many New Orleanians to the magnitude of the community spread has been, to paraphrase, “sounds about right.”

The city that is uniquely social on an average day just spent a whole month being extra social. Carnival season spanned the month of February and culminated with Mardi Gras on Feb. 25. Thirteen days later, the state reported its first case of COVID-19 — in New Orleans.

On air with New Orleans Public Radio on Tuesday, former Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health Dr. Rebekah Gee said, "It turned out people were not just catching beads, they were catching COVID-19."

Gee, now a gratis assistant professor at the Louisiana State University Schools of Public Health & Medicine, said the question of why New Orleans or New York City were hit harder than, say, Los Angeles, is something for researchers to determine later. But for now, we do know that New Orleans saw 1.4 million visitors packed into Mardi Gras parade routes just as the coronavirus was beginning to spread in the U.S.

“The conditions were right for it,” she said.

Credit Ashley Dean / WWNO
A Mardi Gras parade makes its way through the Marigny. Feb. 25, 2020.

The number of people who attended Mardi Gras celebrations who are now sick with COVID-19 is unknown, but there has been a smattering of reports from around the country of people who attended the festivities getting sick.

And Gee isn’t the only expert thinking this way. Dr. F. Brobson Lutz Jr., a former health director of New Orleans and a specialist in infectious disease, told the New York Times, “I think it all boils down to Mardi Gras. The greatest free party in the world was a perfect incubator at the perfect time.”

While the enormity of this pandemic is unusual in modern terms, cities in general are, of course, no strangers widespread outbreaks of disease.

“Cities have been the places where contagions spread. The plagues of Europe — Venice, Amsterdam, the ports of Great Britain. ” Gee said. “New Orleans is the seat of public health in Louisiana for a reason. Here in this city was where contagion spread, historically.

“Port cities are places where you have a lot of commerce, and in New Orleans, we have shipping industry, tourism, cruises lines, and a relatively dense population that is also low income. Those conditions are optimal.”

Credit Ashley Dean / WWNO
A cruise ship sit docked on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. March 19, 2020.

Wuhan, China and other Asian cities are “more challenged, economically” and have denser populations than New Orleans. “But it’s different there,” Gee said.

And New Orleans could take notes.

As the numbers continue to climb, medical staff and officials are bracing for overburden hospitals and urgently searching for supplies.

“The case count is very sobering,” Gov. Edwards said in a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

“Let me be clear about this. Our ventilator capacity is far from OK,” Edwards said. “... This alarming growth has a devastatingly fast impact on our resources and our ability to care for people.”

The supply of ventilators alone paints an alarming picture. Edwards said the state is distributing 100 ventilators on Wednesday in the Region 1 area around New Orleans, then another 100 tomorrow, and likely another 100 early next week.

“Even if we allocate all 300 of those, we know just in Region 1 were still 600 ventilators short,” he said.

“To say that the demand outpaces the supply would be a great understatement,” he added later.


READ MORE: ‘This is absolutely frightening’: Louisiana Hospitals Brace For The Worst Of COVID-19


No one state could ever be prepared for a health crisis of this magnitude, Gee said on Thursday, “but the nation ought to be prepared for this.

“Both our military resources and our manufacturing capacities ought to be able to ramp up to meet the need when something like this is happening.”

Credit Patrick Madden / WWNO
A discarded face mask lies on the ground outside Ochsner Baptist Medical Center in New Orleans. March 25, 2020.

The fact that LSU doctors are buying bunny suits on eBay, that there are reports of New York clinicians wearing plastic bags, that a senator sent her a YouTube video demonstrating how multiple people can share one ventilator — it’s all unacceptable, Gee said.

She praised Edwards’ leadership and said the federal government needs to step up its support: “A state like Louisiana can’t meet supply chain on its own. … We need to think of this like war and mobilize our national stockpiles and manufacturing capability.”

But while managing the outbreak and working to save lives is the government’s problem, preventing further community spread still comes down to the individual.

“You don’t want to be the person who is careless and sloppy,” Gee said as a final reminder. “... You end up in the ICU, taking up a hospital bed that could be used by someone else who needs it.”

Or as Avegno put it Wednesday: “Each of us must act as if we have this virus.”


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Ashley Dean is the digital news editor for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was the editor of Denverite, a digital news startup now under the Colorado Public Radio umbrella. Prior to that she was a copy editor and features writer at the Denver Post, and before that, a music reporter for the Colorado Daily. She graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in journalism and from Northeastern University with a bachelor's degree in journalism.
Patrick Madden joined WWNO in 2019 as its first-ever Regional News Director, overseeing news reporting at WWNO, as well as our partner station WRKF Baton Rouge. Madden also serves as one of the hosts of Louisiana Considered, and co-hosts Friday's Politics Roundtable on Louisiana Considered with Stephanie Grace, columnist for The Times-Picayune | The Advocate.

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